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Suu Kyi's visit to India: Reflecting geo-political realities

On November13, Myanmar opposition leader and Member of Parliament Aung San Suu Kyi paid her first visit to India after almost 40 years.

The Indian media described her visit as "lighting up" India during Diwali.

Suu Kyi was in India to deliver the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture and meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, renewing the focus on burgeoning ties between the two neighbours.

The India visit in many ways holds the most significance for Suu Kyi, who spent her formative years in the country and studied and lived in Delhi. It was in Delhi where she had spent a considerable number of years as a student in the 1960s when her mother Daw Khin Kyi was the Myanmarese Ambassador to India

An admirer of Rammohan Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatama Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, she is said to have an "openness to ideas and innovations from other cultures," according to biographer Peter Popham.

She met with Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh on November 14 and urged the people of India to help her country secure democracy. At the same time she expressed her sadness that India, which supported her movement for democracy in Myanmar after the military crackdown in 1988, changed its policy and sought engagement in the 1990s with the military rulers. She added: "I was saddened to feel that India had drawn away from us during our very difficult days."

Observers say that India insisted it had to follow a pragmatic policy because of its concerns about China's strong influence on its neighbour, Myanmar. For example, Myanmar allowed China to develop roads and ports in areas bordering the Indian Ocean. Moreover the reported installation of a Chinese surveillance naval base in one of Myanmar's islands opposite Andaman Islands of India (Cocos Islands) has heightened India's security concerns.

During the trip, she reportedly discussed the development of Myanmar, which has just come out of decades of political and economic isolation. She is particularly interested in learning from the Indian experience in agriculture, health, science and technology.

Suu Kyi's India visit is her fourth foreign visit in as many months. She first visited Thailand, then Europe, where she received the Nobel Peace Prize, and the US. These visits presented three different political underpinnings in the context of Myanmar's reform process.

In Thailand, Suu Kyi wore a cloak of reservation, neither sure nor certain of the nature of her country's reform process. This had resulted in some misunderstanding between her and the generals in power back home.

However, this bad-blood between her and the government was overcome when she appealed for responsible investment and engagement from the international community while in Europe. Her approach in Europe was based on attracting investment into Myanmar that would benefit the people.

Suu Kyi has thrown her support behind a bill on foreign investment before parliament and is calling on the West to further ease sanctions. "We are not worried about it at all," said Han Tha Myint, a member of the party's central executive committee. "What matters most for us is whether these investments and aid are beneficial for the people or not."

The Myanmarese government of President Thein Sein has unleashed the "second wave of reforms" focusing on economic growth, foreign investment and infrastructure. In April, it scrapped the fixed exchange rate and moved to unify multiple exchange rates for the local currency, kyat.

Also, it has passed a new investment law tailored to attract foreign investment. Barring a few sensitive sectors, the government has allowed 100% ownership of foreign ventures with no minimum capital in all.

As the leader of the opposition, Suu Kyi would be interacting with her Indian interlocutors at the same level. The visit is indeed important in more than one way. She is also emerging as a significant political force.

Myanmar's strategic significance is not lost on India since Myanmar shares borders with four populous countriesIndia, China, Bangladesh and Thailand. Its ports on the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea, just north of the Malacca Strait, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, are strategically and commercially important.

Endowed with rich natural resources, which include natural gas, oil, timber, and gems, Myanmar is also attracting foreign capital in search of cheap labour. The cost of manufacturing labour in Yangon, its largest city, is only one-eighth of that in Beijing and one-quarter of that in Bangkok.

India laid the foundation in December 2010 for the construction of port and waterway terminal of a Myanmar-India Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project in Sittway (Akyab) township of western Myanmar's Rakhine (Arakan) state. The Kaladan River project is expected to be completed by 2013.

High-level visits have their own dynamics and impact in strengthening relations between countries. Suu Kyi's trip is expected to facilitate future engagement between India and Myanmar. Diplomatic observers say the country is gradually breaking free of the "Chinese grip."

The next parliamentary election in Myanmar will take place in 2015 and Suu Kyi 's party will contest the election. If she wins the election, she could be the president of Myanmar, a position which President Thein Sein agreed to accept if voted to power.

The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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